Horatio Alger Jr. was the biggest American media star of his day. Though nineteenth-century best-seller lists were impressionistic—and the sale of 10,000 volumes was deemed a publishing triumph in those days—readers bought at least 200 million copies of his books, placing him in the Stephen King category.
Today all but three of those hundred-odd novels are out of print. Alger himself is considered a dinosaur of popular literature, a writer whose "strive and succeed" philosophy is as cringe-making as that of his contemporary, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow ("Life is real! Life is earnest!/And the grave is not its goal"). A pity: for Alger was at the forefront of a phenomenally successful experiment in social reform and improvement, a broad movement that inspired poor kids to take advantage of America's social mobility and that led tens of thousands of New York's post-Civil War juvenile delinquents into productive lives. Those who care about the future of the city's poor should re-examine Alger's message: it worked once, and could work again.
Given the tendency of nineteenth-century novelists to thinly disguised autobiography, you might guess that Alger himself was the rags-to-riches hero of his own life. But the real Horatio Alger story, as compelling as any novel, is darker. The sickly child of a Unitarian minister in Marlborough, Massachusetts, Horatio, born in 1832, was always the smallest in his class and far from an academic star—mainly because, a stutterer, he hated to recite the answers even when he knew them. Still, his record was good enough for admission to Harvard. There his academic achievements were in inverse proportion to his size (5’2"): he won academic prizes, experimented with verse and fiction, and regarded the entire four years as a period of "unmixed happiness."
Decades would pass before he found such contentment again. Upon graduation, he tried to write for a living, but book and magazine sales were meager, and after five years he entered the Harvard Divinity School. In 1860, the newly minted Reverend Alger signed on as minister of the First Parish Unitarian Church of Brewster on Cape Cod, supplementing an $800 annual income by freelancing articles and stories. He had just started to manage the two careers of preacher and writer when catastrophe struck.
It was of his own making. A 13-year-old told his parents that the new parson had molested him. An investigation began. Another lad stated that he had been similarly assailed. Faced with charges of "the abominable and revolting crime of gross familiarity with boys," the accused was allowed to resign—with the proviso that he leave town at once.
Some time afterward, Alger wrote a poem, "Friar Anselmo's Sin." It began:
Friar Anselmo (God's grace may he win)
Committed one sad day a deadly sin.
Alone and in misery, the monk (whose iniquity is never specified) happens across a wounded traveler and gives him aid. An angel materializes, assuring the sinner that he has taken the right path. The chance for atonement is at hand:
Thy guilty stains shall be washed white again,
By noble service done thy fellow-men.
The fugitive repaired to New York City in the spring of 1866. Though never to wear the cloth again, he resolved to live out the Christian ideal, expiating his sin by saving others. How exactly he would do it, he didn't yet know.
The Manhattan he came to was the city of Gilded Age robber barons, of Boss Tweed, and of millions of ambitious newcomers, drawn by the postwar boom and its seemingly boundless opportunities. Below the prosperity, though, was another New York, a nighttown of squalid slums that travelers compared to Calcutta. There was scarcely a block in the poorest areas that a pedestrian could negotiate "without climbing over a heap of trash or, in rain, wading through a bed of slime," as Otto Bettmann describes it in The Good Old Days, They Were Terrible. To the physical pollution corresponded a moral one. Many streets were so dangerous that policemen hesitated to walk them alone. "Most of my friends are investing in revolvers and carry them about at night," a Gramercy Park resident noted in his diary—and the Park was one of the city's better neighborhoods.
The New York City street urchin entered the national consciousness in those years. More than 60,000 neglected or abandoned kids ran unsupervised in the streets, partly because of the fallout from the tremendous wave of immigration from Ireland and continental Europe that was taking place. With immigration came a social pathology of maladjustment to the New World: families that fell apart; alcoholism and drug abuse (opium could be purchased across the counter); out-of-wedlock pregnancies and, inevitably, neglected children; physical and sexual abuse of every imaginable kind. Beside the foreign immigrants, there were the under-aged and unacknowledged casualties of the Civil War. "The parents may have been killed or simply took the opportunity to abandon them," Alger wrote of them. "Some, apparently, were abandoned where their parents had them. Somehow they made their way to the city, and now accept constant struggle as a part of their daily lives."
What was to be done about the juveniles likely to die on the streets or end up behind bars? Social worker Etta Angel Wheeler found one answer, when she came upon a child wandering naked and unclaimed. The legal authorities to whom she appealed refused aid. In desperation, she turned to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which determined that, "the child being an animal," it would grant shelter and protection.
Practical philanthropists came up with better answers and put them into effect. Rev. Charles Loring Brace mused on what to do about the city's "great numbers of children sleeping about the streets at night, in boxes or under stairways." One cold night, he saw "some ten or a dozen little homeless creatures piled together trying to keep each other warm over a grating outside The Sun office. There used to be a mass of them at The Atlas, sleeping in the lobby and cellar, until printers drove them away by pouring water over them." In response, he founded the Children's Aid Society, designed to take homeless or abused juveniles out of the city and place them upstate or, better still, out West. There they might be instilled with a " 'sense of property,' and the desire of accumulation, which, economists tell us, is the base of all civilization." At the same time, John Hughes, New York's first Catholic archbishop, set up parochial schools and a residential institution called the Catholic Protectory, which brought up abandoned or orphaned children to be useful members of society. (See "Once We Knew How to Rescue Poor Kids," Autumn 1998.) At the heart of such institutions lay the recognition that a civilized society is only as sound as its youngest members.
Horatio Alger, both as a novelist and a philanthropist, belongs to this effort of reclamation. He, too, asked himself what could be done about these homeless children. Looking for the answer, he wandered through the city's worst neighborhoods.
He noted one encounter with a boy who saw him consulting his gold watch.
"You must be real rich," said the youth. "I bet it cost you a pooty penny."
Alger explained that the watch was a graduation present from his parents. "It belonged to my grandfather. Perhaps one day you'll get a fine watch."
"Not much chance. I got no family to gimme, and I ain't about to be adopted by a rich man, unless yer willin."
"Don't you have a home?"
"None to speak of. There's a crate with some straw in a yard back of Pearl Street, but a big feller beat me to it, so I was bummin' it last night. Sand boxes is swell, 'cuz yer can get it up all around yer. But in winter nothing beats them steam gratin's. They's just like a featherbed."
At a church service in Five Points, the city's worst slum, Alger struck up a conversation with several boys, listening closely to their patois. As Horatio interviewed them, these "street arabs" spoke of broken homes, violent confrontations with parents, rocky futures. He saw how their cocky attitudes masked a profound despair. Alger advised them to improve themselves, to get a job with a future instead of hanging about the streets, squandering whatever came their way from shining shoes or picking pockets. Some nodded in agreement, expressing the desire to change their lives; more were content to take life as they found it.
Why, Alger pondered, did individuals subjected to the same conditions turn out very differently? One boy might become a thief, a sociopath, even a killer. His neighbor, subjected to the same poverty and broken home, might aim to be a decent, upright citizen. What was the difference between them? What saved certain boys, he came to believe, was character—a quality that gave them the strength to resist sloth and temptation. But was this inborn? In that case determinism won the day, and change was out of the question. Or, given the right opportunity, could a dispossessed lad win his share of the American dream simply by willing the change? The latter, Alger thought—but only if the boy stopped viewing himself as a victim and instead sought the proper advice.
As these boys spoke—and as Alger meditated upon the worst crime of the slums: the stealing of childhood from children—an idea came to him. He would be Brother Anselmo redivivus. He had sinned against youths; now he would rescue them and in the process save himself. He would do it as a novelist—a novelist who would, as he put it, "depict the inner life and represent the feelings and emotions of these little waifs of city life . . . thus to excite a deeper and more widespread sympathy in the public mind, as well as to exert a salutary influence upon the class of whom he is writing, by setting before them inspiring examples of what energy, ambition, and an honest purpose may achieve."
Out of this resolve, Alger wrote Ragged Dick in 1866. He would pack an emotional punch in this book, graphically displaying the horror of juvenile life on the streets. The idea that there were parents who could abandon or abuse their children was new to many Americans. Alger would disabuse them by going face-to-face with the problems of the age, introducing two youths whose lives were modeled on real people he had met in his travels.
The first, Johnny Nolan, is a ne'er-do-well. He has "a father living, but he might as well have been without one. Mr. Nolan was a confirmed drunkard and spent the greater part of his wages for liquor. His potations made him ugly, and inflamed a temper never very sweet, working him up sometimes to such a pitch of rage that Johnny's life was in danger. Some months before he had thrown a flatiron at his son's head with such terrific force that unless Johnny dodged, he would not have lived long enough to obtain a place in our story." Yet that place is not a happy one, for Johnny stays surly and resistant to alteration.
The other character, "Ragged Dick," is a striver, anxious to work his way up from boot blacking to something better. Barely literate at first, Dick Hunter finds a counselor his own age, although far better educated. Henry Fosdick (like Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain) is the son of a printer and familiar with the dictionary. Dick tells him, "I don't want to be ignorant. I want to grow up 'spectable." Thus motivated, the ignorant youth learns the values of honesty, integrity, education, and hard work—including work on himself. He picks up rudimentary arithmetic skills. He improves his vocabulary and discovers the value of books. He comes to bathe more frequently, to dress better, to save his money.
Dick needs only one break. It comes when he chances to be at the South Ferry slip when a little boy falls in the water. Without hesitation, Dick plunges in and saves the child from drowning, an instant demonstration of resourcefulness, courage, self-risk—in short, character. The grateful father, a prosperous businessman, interviews the rescuer. Satisfied that well-mannered Dick has the right stuff, he inquires: "How would you like to enter my counting-room as clerk, Richard?"
The next week, en route to a new life, our hero is cheerfully reminded that he can no longer go by his sobriquet. Says Henry Fosdick, "You must drop that name and think of yourself now as—"
"Richard Hunter, Esq."
"A young gentleman on the way to fame and fortune," adds his friend.
Naive? Simplistic? To the jaded, perhaps. But to anyone familiar with urban poverty, the Alger novel was a blueprint of salvation a century before Martin Luther King stated his belief that what mattered was the not the color of one's skin but the content of one's character. Many of Alger's contemporaries shared this belief, including, manifestly, Theodore Roosevelt. But it is a view not shared by the liberal mind-set of today.
Case in point: Gotham, a monumental recent history of New York by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace. Their book goes out of its way to disparage Alger's "'secularized version of salvation' which demanded ongoing subordination, not manly independence from the once-scrappy Dick. . . . Alger's is a creed for clerks." This is precisely the elite attitude that condemns youths to a lifetime in the ghetto by egging them on from the safe sidelines, as their turned-around baseball caps, boom-boxes, and in-your-face demeanor compel employers to look elsewhere for help.
Alger did not praise servility; he lauded reliability and responsibility. It was just those virtues that self-made author and publisher Elbert Hubbard stressed in his celebrated nineteenth-century work, A Message to Garcia. Hubbard's observation about the reckless youth of New York jibes with Alger's, and it is still germane today: "What boy well raised can compare with your street gamin who has the knowledge and the shrewdness of a grown-up broker? But the Arab never becomes a man." And he never lacks for those who romanticize the dead-end culture of the slums and its "scrappy," doomed personae.
Ragged Dick was serialized in a magazine called Student and Schoolmate. Each installment picked up additional readers; published in hard cover the following year, the book became a sensation. Young readers clamored for more moral fables; these seemed a blueprint for success in a society in the process of defining itself. Alger was only too happy to provide sequels.
The classic Alger plot seldom varied: a youth of humble origins makes his way in the city by virtue of grit and toil. Luck usually plays its part, but to Alger, fortune was something to be enticed and manipulated. He would have agreed with Hector Berlioz's observation: "One must have the talent for luck." And, naturally, the pluck to go along with it. With these assets a boy could compete with any other youth, even one born with money and a good name.
Take Mark the Match Boy, for example, a book born out of Alger's happening to overhear a boy refer to himself as "a timber merchant in a small way, sellin' matches." Mark, a common lad, is accused of stealing, though the thief is actually a well-born kid named Roswell. Their boss confronts them both:
"There seems to be a conflict of evidence here," said Mr. Baker.
"I hope the word of a gentleman's son is worth more than that of a match boy," said Roswell haughtily.
Ah, but is it? Not when a witness appears, informing Mr. Baker that Roswell had once given him a counterfeit bill. Before tale's end, Roswell is disgraced and forced to apologize to Mark.
In Alger's view, square dealing and independence formed the basis of the American experiment. Hadn't Benjamin Franklin written, "God helps those who help themselves"? Hadn't Thomas Paine observed, "When we are planning for posterity, we ought to remember that virtue is not hereditary"? Hadn't Abraham Lincoln stated that, "Truth is the best vindication against slander"? Didn't Ralph Waldo Emerson instruct, "Discontent is the want of self-reliance; it is infirmity of will"? Alger's novels aimed to instill the idea behind those phrases into America's children.
Like Dickens, Alger tried to improve the lot of poor children not only through his crusading novels but through his own philanthropic activities. He supported, and raised funds for, the Five Points Mission, the YMCA, the Children's Aid Society, and the Newsboys' Lodging House, a kind of residential settlement house where boys could find shelter from the city's violence and depravity. With luck, they might even learn the values of knowledge and propriety. "You shouldn't be fooled, Mr. Alger," one of the Lodging's founders, philanthropic clergyman Charles Loring Brace, warned the author on one of his many visits to the institution. "We've got lads cunning and sharpened by all the friction of street life. Some are merely young, ignorant and friendless, but many have already tasted fruits of vice and crime. Their friends are often the forlorn prostitute and mature criminal." Though the boys regarded the shy, balding visitor as "a prayin' man" brought in to lecture them on the seven deadly sins, after prolonged exposure they accepted Alger as a yarn spinner who could keep them entertained for hours, retailing stories about bad lads who made good. They made him a kind of honorary Newsboy.
Animated by a fury at social injustice, Alger agitated for child welfare both as a novelist and a citizen. He set his sights, for example, on the then-rampant "padrone system." In this long-forgotten version of slavery, rural Italians were assured that their children could find good jobs overseas; padrones would see to their welfare until the youngsters caught on in the New World. Scarcely had the immigrants stepped off the boat, however, when the patrons crammed them into overcrowded quarters and sent them out into the street as beggars or street musicians, all day, every day. All profits went to their keepers.
Alger took it upon himself to lobby lawmakers about the system. Simultaneously, he began work on an exposé in fictive form: Phil the Fiddler, about a casualty of the padrones. The padrones sent veiled threats. Alger was unmoved. Thugs ransacked his apartment as an admonition, but Alger would not back off. Phil was read by the children of politicians and reformers, talk began around dinner tables, and the following year the New York State Legislature passed a law against "cruelty to children." Two years later, the padrone system was no more.
Yet writing and agitating scarcely began to tap the little man's prodigious energy. From his apartment at 223 West 34th Street, he sent out checks and wrote to friendly businessmen and colleagues, trying to place worthy juveniles in decent jobs. In one typical letter, he told a friend about two boys in need. The first, he thought, would be unsuitable "for a lawyer's office, as his education is not sufficiently good, and he is only 14. I have a partial promise from my tailor to take him in the fall as he learned something of tailoring when an inmate of the Boys Catholic Protectory, and I will help him as he needs through the summer. There is another boy who would like the position in the lawyer's office. He graduates this summer from the public schools. He is an orphan, but is better than the other, having older brothers who took care of him." In the 1880s, he informally adopted three orphan boys and incorporated their stories into his novels.
Alger's writings caught the attention of Joseph Seligman, one of the city's most prominent financiers. Impressed with the writer after a long interview, Seligman hired him to tutor his children in Greek and Latin. He proved to be such a skilled pedagogue that Seligman recommended him to friends. So it was that Horatio came to tutor Benjamin Cardozo, later a Supreme Court justice. It is not much of a stretch to imagine that many of the moral lessons Cardozo learned as an apt pupil were to affect his decisions on the bench.
Even as Alger entered middle age, with a push-broom moustache and a stooped posture that made him seem even smaller, he seemed ignorant of the word "fatigue." He continued to churn out novels about the city and about the West, where he made occasional trips in search of new material. In the summer of 1881, after James Garfield was assassinated, Alger dropped everything, working night and day for three weeks to write a life of the slain president, the first "quickie" biography in American history. Naturally, it was a Horatio Alger story: From Canal Boy to President.
Horatio then returned to a new series of novels for the young. Like Canal Boy, these, too, were best-sellers. Virtually all the narratives followed the template of his earlier efforts: a youth is beset by destitution and the temptations of the wicked city. Soon he is betrayed by a trusted associate. But with the help of a wise mentor he picks himself up, dusts himself off, and, with honesty and diligence, ultimately triumphs over circumstance. That was what Alger's public demanded, and he saw no reason to disappoint them.
Although the craving for this master plot diminished with the years, Alger's celebrity was too strong to fade. Late in the century, he delightedly informed a friend, "A new game called Authors will be issued by the U.S. Playing Card company, in Cincinnati, in the fall. I am in it." Thrilled as he was, he remained a realist, well aware of such rivals for boys' attention as Oliver Optic, G. A. Henty, and Capt. Mayne Read. Upon reading of Louisa May Alcott's death in 1888, he wrote a friend, "What a pity she died so soon! She had no competitor as a writer for girls. There are plenty of good writers for boys. If there were not, I should occupy a larger niche and have more abundant sales." All the same, the royalties were generous enough throughout most of Alger's career, though he lavished little of the money he earned on himself, giving away much of it to private charities or to poor youths who came to him with tales of woe.
Ironically, it was after he succumbed to pneumonia in 1899 that the author assumed pantheon status. Sensing that the Alger name was still potent, publishers hired his editor, Edward Stratemeyer (who later headed the syndicate that produced the Hardy Boys and the Nancy Drew series) to complete (and in some cases concoct) several unfinished books. These brought fresh attention to the name, and in the new century a second wave got under way.
The influence Alger had on American youth was incalculable. Men as different as journalist Heywood Broun, comedian Groucho Marx, and novelist Ernest Hemingway were fans. To Broun, Alger's books were inspiring, "simple tales of honesty triumphant." Marx remarked, "Horatio Alger's books conveyed a powerful message to me and many of my young friends—that if you worked hard at your trade, the big chance would eventually come. As a child I didn't regard it as a myth, and as an old man I think of it as the story of my life." Hemingway's sister Marcelline recalled that during their childhood, "There was one summer when Ernest couldn't get enough of Horatio Alger." Not that Alger's didacticism influenced Papa's prose style. But there must have been something in the writer's stress on grit and self-reliance that affected young Ernest, as it did so many of his contemporaries.
In the roaring twenties, though, Alger became as passé as the Stanley Steamer. In the Depression he fared no better; Nathaniel West's satirical 1934 novel, A Cool Million, sent Alger's plot in reverse, as the naive protagonist loses limb after limb seeking success among rapacious capitalists. Two years ago, the film adaptation of Hunter Thompson's 1971 novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, presented the antihero as "Horatio Alger gone mad on drugs in Las Vegas."
But if you listened closely, you could hear something beyond the jeers—something that sounded like the last laugh. In 1947, the Horatio Alger Association was born. Today the practical-minded group, no convocation of academic scholars, remains dedicated to recognizing American leaders who arose, like Alger heroes, from humble origins "through honesty, hard work, self-reliance and perseverance." With grants to U.S. high school students who have "faced and overcome great obstacles in their young lives," the Association encourages them to emulate such disparate members as Oprah Winfrey and Ray Kroc, Art Buchwald and Stan Musial, George Shearing and Colin Powell.
Browsing the Internet one afternoon, I found many old and well-read Horatio Alger novels for sale, most priced under $15. Some weeks later, I began reading the novels aloud to my children. We found them well-plotted, entertaining, and instructive, not at all the righteous antiques that I had been led to believe. Almost every chapter ends with a cliff-hanger, and all of us could hardly wait for the next night to find out what happened. The conclusions never failed to produce an emotional satisfaction and a feeling that what the author was selling—independence, forbearance, square dealing—was well worth buying. In the Clinton era, when shame and remorse have almost lost their meaning, the turnaround of Horatio Alger's personal life is instructive, and the message of his work invaluable.